To Reclaim Slut or Not To Reclaim Slut: Is that the Question?

When I initially received my invitation to SlutWalk Los Angeles, I didn’t open it. I was aware of the Internet hoopla around SlutWalk, the anti-rape marches sweeping North America, Australia and Europe. I’d seen enthusiastic online posts from students, friends and much-respected peers. But I couldn’t get past the sensationalist (and attention grabbing!) word slut.

My reaction would have been different 15 years ago. As an eager, young, white, working-class woman new to feminism, I was absolutely gung-ho and full of riot grrl sass. I embraced in-your-face tactics and enthusiastically sought to reclaim slut, along with words like bitch and cunt. But as a white, working-class feminist in 2011, swiftly approaching 39, I often harshly judge my younger feminist self. She seems to me less strategic, less analytically adept–more prone to being swept up by the collective energy of a cause.

And the word slut now brings up feelings I’ve developed over time about the hypersexualization of our culture. Porn’s ever-increasing influence on our sexuality has left me cynical. The rise of raunch culture, in which too many women interpret stripper-pole classes as a vehicle to empowerment, has disappointed me. The sexualization of our children has made me angry. Collectively, this makes claiming the word slut, an effort I found revolutionary and exciting over a decade ago, now feel cliche, confusing and counterproductive.

I was not alone in my reaction. SlutWalk has drawn vocal feminist criticism, most prominently from Gail Dines and Wendy J. Murphy, who wrote in the Guardian:

The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.

After reading this piece, I went out and talked with many of the activists behind SlutWalk. All underscored a single point: While re-appropriating slut is one of the intentions behind SlutWalk, it is not what SlutWalk is primarily about. SlutWalk is a response to a thoughtless Canadian police officer’s ignorant and sexist comment urging women to “avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized” this past January. Toronto feminists Sonya JF Barnett and Heather Jarvis were galvanized to organize a protest–the first SlutWalk–to call for an end to victim blaming. They created SlutWalk to ignite a conversation about sexual assault, highlight oppressive slut-shaming, challenge the tendency of the criminal justice system and the culture at large to blame the victim and, yes, re-appropriate slut.

As Hugo Schwyzer, a member of SlutWalk LAs steering committee, notes:

Some of us embrace the word slut. Some don’t. But we’re all marching for two vital liberties: both the freedom to be sexual and the freedom from violence, harassment and rape

Scheduled SlutWalk LA speaker Shira Tarrant, who did a three-part interview series with Gail Dines for the Ms. Blog, had this response to the Guardian article:

My message to feminists like Gail Dines who are busy attacking SlutWalks is that you miss the point. If the word “slut” bugs you then focus on the WALK part of SlutWalk and stop attacking political allies who are working to prevent sexual assault. SlutWalk is a movement that is getting international media attention and bringing thousands of people into the streets to speak out against rape and sexual assault. This is an amazing moment of anti-violence activism. This is huge. We need it!

SlutWalk Boston speaker Jaclyn Friedman, author of the treatise “My Sluthood, Myself”, also responded:

As for “precious feminist resources,” everything I’ve seen with the SlutWalk leads me to conclude we’re generating them, not using them up. The radical, loving outrage at the Boston SlutWalk was electric, and it’s already being put to use to power a new coalition in Boston called RAGE: Radical Alliance for Gender Equality. It’s motivating a whole new generation to take leadership in feminist action. It could not be more energizing.

The mobilizing success of SlutWalk is hard to deny. SlutWalk’s founders initially hoped for a turnout of 100. Instead, it resonated with thousands and exploded into over 70 satellite marches globally. According to SlutWalk co-founder Jarvis, it has spread faster and wider than the founders can keep pace with.

Media critics I spoke with had more mixed opinions about whether the term slut works as a media strategy. Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency isn’t personally bothered by the word slut, but thinks it has worked against SlutWalk’s aim of putting a halt to victim-blaming.

The sensational word slut has gotten the organizers lots of media attention. However, that attention is not typically about violence against women at all, but about how women should or shouldn’t dress, which is a completely regressive conversation that does not help anti-violence activism.

Jennifer L. Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News, thinks the corporate media coverage of SlutWalk has been unusually feminist-influenced. Pozner, who has monitored media coverage of violence against women since 1992, says SlutWalk is bringing an anti-victim-blaming message outside the feminist, anti-racist community in a rare way.

I was pleasantly surprised at how great the media coverage in Toronto and Boston was. It contextualized rape as violence, as institutional, and gave voice to feminist antiviolence experts in ways I almost never see in news media. I see [SlutWalk] as an effective media tool–well-messaged media stunts are a key element in creating a climate conducive to social change. Anything that drives home to a mainstream media audience the concept that rape is not a crime dependent upon fashion, and that women do not ‘provoke’ sexual assault with their clothing or drinking, is a positive, potentially transformative force.

That doesn’t mean SlutWalk’s brand and style of activism will appeal to everyone or be accessible to everyone. Ernesto Aguilar writes at People of Color Organize!:

How would the Mexican-American mothers I know feel about their daughters calling themselves whores? Or the Black mothers of friends react to their daughters calling themselves sluts? Probably not well. Many communities of color have had growing movements against anti-woman language for good reason. For communities of color, even those who aren’t expressly political, there’s a visceral reaction to name-calling aimed at women of color, who are seemingly always the targets of names whose historical, cultural, social and political edge white women will never confront.

Tarrant remarks,

I know when I was a teen mom I could not have risked the scrutiny of participating in a SlutWalk. As a professor with a grown child, I can.

But she goes on to say:

SlutWalk is imperfect. All political movements are imperfect. Human beings are imperfect. But while we’re fighting amongst ourselves, sexual assaults keep happening.

And therein lies the heart of the matter. Are we bad or subpar feminists if we participate? Just as my own feminist consciousness and feminist activism grew and changed, so do movements and all activists behind them. And in my arduous exploration of SlutWalk, my opinions grew and changed. I was particularly inspired by my conversations with founder Heather Jarvis, who spoke as an individual committed to fighting injustice, candidly acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of her efforts and SlutWalk at large.

I was also inspired by the response of lifelong feminist activist Zoe Nicholson (one of six women who fasted for 37 days in 1982 to support the  Equal Rights Amendment). While publicly acknowledging that she was not a fan of SlutWalk’s name and the misunderstandings that it generates, in the end she spoke out in support of the walk  and in solidarity with all victims of violence. As she states,

Every time some one agitates, demonstrates for equality, the opponents lose their stranglehold just a little bit. No act is too small.

In the end, I support and stand in solidarity with SlutWalk.

Photo of SlutWalk Ottawa from Flickr user R Wolsak under Creative Commons.

 

Comments

  1. Jessica P. says:

    I am still unsure about Slut Walk. I think that the message is great and it’s awesome that the larger issue of violence against women, victim blaming, etc being put in the spotlight is a step in the right direction. What is unsettling to me though are the girls I know who participate in slutwalk just do it to go dress scarcely and post those pictures on facebook without being educated on the issues at hand. I have nothing against the walk but I also don’t know if we’re at a point in history where the word”slut” can be reclaimed considering how prominent it is in our day to day language. When my conservative, ultra religious friend, playfully calls me slut I know she is not reclaiming the word for her feminist agenda rather she thinks it’s a name to call your girl friends. This to me shows there are some issues with SlutWalk that need to be worked out.

  2. Although I like the message SlutWalk gives and its participants’ intentions, I also hate the name. It may seem appealing and attention-grabbing at first, but the name is misleading. Since it is called SlutWalk, does that mean that the women and few men particpaing in the walk are all sluts? Because frankly, it sounds like an event for sluts. I completely believe that slut-shaming is wrong and that a female should not be assaulted or raped simply because of her atire. Yes, such a matter is something to stand and speak up for. Men and all people should learn to not act in such traumatizing and terriying ways and society should understand that it is not the victim’s fault. Being so, SlutWalk should consider a new name.

  3. Eli-Ran Y says:

    The word “slut” in my opinion is the most incongruous and pointless word in the dictionary. The reason why I think so is because this word is being thrown around constantly, whether it is from having a flight between two women or two women wearing the same wardrobe. One can just walk onto the street and the word’s bound to be slurred by somebody, somewhere. I believe that this word should be “banned” from the dictionary, simply because why is their a derogative word of such designated to a women and not a man? Men sleep around as much as women do, so why is the woman called the slut? Our society’s andocentric views are to blame. Gender Socialization encourages men to be sexual and women to be quiet and subservient, and when they try to express their sexual “side”, they are criticized.

  4. Ambar P. says:

    I support SlutWalk for the cause, but I totally see how people can be fixated on the word “slut”, unable to get past it. To be honest, I’m not too crazy about the use of the word. I loved what Ernesto Aguilar said about it, as well, because it helps me realize WHY I am so thrown back by the use of the word. As a Hispanic female who was raised very religiously, the most offensive thing to be called was a slut/whore. That is seen as a direct attack on a woman’s character, morals, and value (regardless of whether one agrees or not, that is how I was raised to see it). As I am older, I am much more in tune with my sexuality and “Slut” seems like just another negative word used to keep women oppressed. I understand it is about victim-blaming (which, I’ve detested ever since my friend’s sister got raped and her lawyer deliberately told her “he’s using the slut-defense against you”. Ridiculous!), but at the same time, why must we continuously work WITH this negative word in order to get a point across? Feminists already have a bad reputation in the media because of our EXTREMELY radical tactics that we use to get our point across, but I think it’s time we start being a little more CLEAR about the messages we are trying send out because, knowing the way the media works, our messages can be easily misconstrued and work totally against us.

  5. Shahien Hendizadeh says:

    Why call this slutwalk? Slut is such a degrading term for women and girls. It is so offensive and disrespectful especially for persian girls. Girls in Iran are expected to dress up a certain way and have their face covered and everything. The slut defense term they used is absolutely shameful, just because a girl is dressed a certain way they cannot be blamed for being raped or sexually assaulted. It is harmful for women’s image and their reputation as well. Women should be able and free to wear what they want, when they want.

  6. I have mixed feelings regarding the Slut Walk. I think the Slut Walk does a great job addressing the issue of victim blaming. A way a women dresses does NOT automatically translate to consent. For the most part, I support the slut walk and their efforts. The only reason I may be a little critical about it is the name choice. The word “Slut” is such a derogatory, degrading name and I do not like how the slut walk attempts to own and accept the word. For people to take the movement more seriously, I think the “slut” element should be taken out.

  7. I think if they did not call it Slutwalk people would not think it would be fun and exiting to participate. I think the word slut means you are half naked and flirting with every man you see. My mom has a term for the clothing she thinks is in appropriate. She says, “That’s a S look” S means slut. She thinks there are consequences for the way you dress. That may be somewhat true but no one deserves to be raped for dressing like a slut and yet I’m not sure being a slut is being a feminist.

  8. Julian G. says:

    I personally find SlutWalk an inspirational feminist movement, and agree with Hugo Scwyzer’s point that, “we’re all marching for two vital liberties: both the freedom to be sexual and the freedom from violence, harassment and rape.” Even though I agree with the author that the word “slut” is heavily ingrained in patriarchal thought, I believe that accepting and embracing the word slut shows great defiance from the feminist movement. This is because a way to challenge sexism and overall patriarchal thinking is by women embodying words like slut, cunt, whore, etc. By doing this, these words will loose their negative connotation within feminists, and therefore loose their overall meaning. If women accept such negative terminology, it will no longer affect them or be a threat when sexist men use words such as “slut”. The first step to changing patriarchal thought starts by embracing oneself and finding self-actualization, which includes accepting those negative traits and changing or eliminating their meaning. Therefore, I dont think the word “slut” should be eliminated from the name of this influential movement against victim blaming.

  9. Ashley A says:

    I do not like the word “slut, hoe, bitch, whore, ect” they are all degrading to me, but his however does not mean that I wouldn’t stand for a positive movement such as SlutWalk. I am against rape, sexual abuse, and victim blaming and believe it should come to an end. People who go against the SlutWalk movement just because of the name isn’s looking at the bigger picture. When I saw the title of the post because reading it, I thought it was women walking to end men and others calling women sluts, but after reading this article I think the name is something that catches people attention and can change their positive or negative views. As long as the movement is being influential and helping change lives, then the name should not matter.

  10. Margarita H. says:

    My own mother calls me slut when I dress in shorts and tank tops, or a variation of slut (in spanish). I think using the word SLUT for this campaign is like Eve Ensler using the word CUNT to grab the peoples attention and trying to “take back the word”! I’m all for it. No more SLUT shaming. There’s a sex- positive educator on youtube that also supports the end of all slut shaming and the negative connotation to the word.

  11. This is an incredibly polarizing term for me and one in which I am still unsure of my feelings towards. I think ultimately I agree with Shira Tarrant’s assessment that SlutWalk is imperfect, as are most if not all political movements. However, I do think part of the effectiveness of SlutWalk IS how incredibly polarizing it is because it opens up an avenue for dialogue on what “slut” means to so many women. It is an important conversation to have, and one that has been greatly lacking. Young girls are all too dismissive of blatant misogynistic terminology used against them not only by young boys and men, but by themselves to other girls. The belief that the word “slut” and terms of the like are inconsequential and serves no cultural relevance is what will draw the attention of those that hold this belief and what ultimately makes SlutWalk significant and therefore, effective. It not only begs the question, what does this word mean to me? why are we so cavalier in our usage of it? but then it primarily hints at the bigger issue of, why does this word exist in the first place? I think it is in that pivotal moment we will see the light bulbs go off and curiosity to a cause ignite, and that is what matters most.

  12. Alexis Cook says:

    i am against alot of these thIngs and i dont support them nor do i approve of them. i dont think by them saying slut walk is such a brilliant idea. I dont agreee with that topic what so ever even though its very catching. Altough, the name itsnt to good but i do support the fact of them all getting together in the community and marching againt different things . I belive if the world slut was taking out things would be differnt and many ladies will chance the way the view it.

  13. Essence H says:

    I think that the slut walk is a positive movement. I personally do not like the word “Slut” but i think that women shouldn’t let little words like this get to them. I’m not saying i’m for men calling us women that , but If women would let the negative term i think it will make the men that do call women that upset. The men will feel shut down instantly.

  14. Like many other individuals commenting, I do agree that the “Slut Walk” movement is a positive force attempting to end violence against women, slut shaming, and attempting to end the “blaming the victim” game. As empowering as the movement is, including the name, I do feel that at times the word slut can be very problematic. In a sense it promotes the hyper sexualization of women and of our culture. Even though any one woman has the right to dress the way she pleases, promoting empowerment with the word slut or whore, in my opinion continues to perpetuate a patriarchal agenda; it pushes a certain form of sexuality on women, that might possibly trap them in a vicious cycle of violence. As feminist we must be very careful of the language we use and how we use, as older individuals it is our job to teach the younger generations about violence against women, and would the word slut come to mind?

  15. Slutwalk to me sounds a little misleading which i understand the movement has named it this on purpose to saturate its media coverage and get the word out. But when i hear the term slutwalk it sounds like a bunch of women protesting against prostitution or the way the media glorifies sexual promiscuity. After reading this article i can now understand the walks purpose better and feel it is a good way to spread their message throughout some of the major cities and with events like these women should be able to come out and join them in expressing themselves freely without fear of being judged. I understand an older womans hesitance to participate in an event called slutwalk but i like how you learned more about it to make an informed decision which is what most people should do instead of just following the norm.

  16. The following link offers a little history of the word “slut”: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=slut
    I would love to attend the walk. I think the use of the word slut is great, even though a lot of people feel negative about it. Slut has a negative connotation to it that is loud enough to call attention to the walk from lot of people to learn what this movement is about. It creates a curiosity. Some may decide not to support this movement, and some may jump right in. I support the ideas of the SlutWalk. “Some of us embrace the word slut. Some don’t. But we’re all marching for two vital liberties: both the freedom to be sexual and the freedom from violence, harassment and rape”(Hugo Schwyzer, a member of SlutWalk LA‘s steering committee). I completely agree with him. I want everyone to have the freedom to dress the way they want and not to have consequences from that. I do not want people to judge each other or call others names because of their choices of clothing and looks as well as how many partners have had or not had. I want everyone to wake up and be aware of how we treat each other on a daily basis. It is sad to see how much effort and focus we put into labeling and destroying each other without any valid reason. Meanwhile, just a tiny portion of this effort and focus goes into trying to get ourselves out of the judgment and stereotyping mode and make a change. Making those internal changes in thought, as well as outward behavior, may be hard to do, but are possible. Rome was not built in one day, and it looks as though we have the main base for change already in place. All we need to do is keep moving forward and using today’s technology to make people question and be more aware of what is really going on around them.

  17. Christine E says:

    I hear the word slut used far too often. When I was in high school just a few years ago I would hear it almost every day. The word “slut” just embraces the sexual double standard in our society. Men and boys are praised for “getting some” while women and girls are looked down upon and called “sluts” for engaging in sexual activity. Not only are girls called sluts for engaging in sexual activity, but they are even called this word for the way that they dress and many other reasons. The word slut definitely has a negative connotation in our society and I appreciate trying to reclaim the word. I think that Slut Walk does a good job of doing this. I think that at first one might be a little confused by the name, or might think that it is something entirely different than it is. But after a little education on the walk you will discover that it aims to end sexual violence and discrimination against women. Overall, I think that Slut Walk is a very good thing because the name grabs everyone’s attention to the real issue at hand.

  18. Jessica L. says:

    “As Hugo Schwyzer, a member of SlutWalk LA‘s steering committee, notes:
    Some of us embrace the word slut. Some don’t. But we’re all marching for two vital liberties: both the freedom to be sexual and the freedom from violence, harassment and rape.” This quote stood out to me the most seeing how the word “Slut” can be seen as something so much more different than what society has perceived it as. I will admit when I first even saw the word SlutWalk I did not know what to think because it is not something that is publicly applauded but mostly something that is seen as shameful. As I read the article I was amazed to see how significant a word can be how it can be connected to freedom from sexuality and even violence. I have always disapproved of the way women are often sexualized and considered “sluts” just by their apparel and appearance. A walk like this is something that this society needs to acknowledge more because women should not keep getting blamed for everything based on physical appearance or just even their sex. Being raped is enough of a tragedy let alone being blamed for even having to go through it is complete blasphemy and disgusts me.

  19. This article was amazing! It completely denigrated the argument that women who dress or act like sluts are the problem. I must admit, when hearing other people mention sluts getting what they deserve I immediately thought is it possible they asked for it by going about certain ways. And my goodness, I was so ignorant there for a second! I was completely missing the point!!This article really opened my eyes, of which I will be forever thankful! The problem has nothing to do with how women go about, or it sexual assults would be done by family or friends. The problem lies in what we have let society get away with. The excuses or finger pointing has to come to an end. The picture shown in the article claiming that ” short skirt does not equal consent” is totally on point. I think many people are still blinded to that fact. It is time for an epiphany!!

  20. I think the intentions and goals of slutwalk is great, but I am unsure about the name of it. Even if the officers say ignore the “slut”part and focus on the walk and intentions, what people see first is the name. Also, I think because of its use of slut in everywhere, more teenagers or adults are using the words more and more. When girls wear short clothes and somewhat “showing” clothes, some people call them “slut”. However, it has positive impact, too. I think the name of “slutwalking” causes people to get more interested in it. I think it works great as “hook”. It would be nice if there exists a more appropriate name that works as hook and non-violential word.

  21. I think that the slut walk is a positive movement, I do not like the word “Slut” it just shouldn’t be said at all. I think that women shouldn’t let little words like this get to them they should just rock what their wearing. I’m not saying for men to call us women that because I personally believe men have not right to call any women that. If women would let the negative term be and ingore it would hopefully make the men that call women upset. The men will feel shut down instantly and stop mocking women with that horrible word they like to say.

  22. I think that the idea behind SlutWalk is noble. That being said, the many negative connotations associated with the word “slut” are so deeply ingrained in our culture at this point that I wonder if SlutWalk’s effect is twofold: “motivating a whole new generation to take leadership in feminist action,” as one of the sources in this article put it, but also (more prevalently) teaching that generation to try and negotiate or grapple with our system of patriarchy rather than go a step further and do away with it. The original goal of feminist has gotten a bit lost throughout its waves, as I’ve learned in Women’s Studies. Second wave radical feminists called for cultural restructuring: doing away with systematic oppression of females instead of just trying to incorporate us into the system that’s already in place. I’d argue that SlutWalk’s intention is to do just that, but the use of the word “slut” in its name drastically diminishes its effect. There’s no reason to be teaching girls and women to reclaim sexist slurs when you have SlutWalk’s reach and resources to teach them about doing away with those slurs (and, in part, our structured inequality) instead.

  23. Caroline F-H says:

    The actions behind SlutWalk are quite admirable. There really needs to be more discussion on the ending of slut/victim shamming, and violence against women. Recently, there was an article circling around FaceBook advertising a new pair of anti-rape undergarments. They are supposed to be completely impenetrable and also inconspicuous. The fact that someone felt the need to make such a garment shows that there still is not enough discussion on the subject of violence against women. The individuals that participate in SlutWalk definitely have the right idea. Let’s force this beast out into the sun so that we can see it, analyze it, and them move towards changing the feeling society holds. That violence against women is no big deal, and really it is the woman’s fault for getting beat up, raped, or worse. Women need to be “REhumanized” lets see them as people and not objects to abuse.

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